Legend of the Grand Mesa Thunderbird’s
I love Grand Junction and the western half of Colorado. I grew up here
and my appreciation grows daily. Its “regular & realness” of
people and sublime flat top edge and steep curtain walls cradle us all
and inspire me daily. As we grow in population, I hope the Grand
Valley will mature in culture and carry a greater appreciation for the
landscape and the outdoor joy in our midst.
The Thunderbird Hieroglyph on the Grand Mesa
Caught my eye and curiosity as early as 2nd grade at the inaugural year of Grand Mesa
Elementary School where Thunderbird’s were our mascot, I saw the bird
like feature but no one else noticed it or knew what it was. The
Thunderbird can be seen by looking straight up from “F Road” or
Patterson Road traveling east toward Grand Mesa in Grand Junction. Have a look if you
can before reading this tale…
I am going to share part of my life story and a connection we all
can have with this land and to a greater cultural history of our Grand
Valley. This story relates to a feature on the Grand Mesa that looks
over the Grand Valley everyday. After reading this, I hope more of us will look back
at the Grand Mesa with a deeper sense of history and a feeling of how the
Ute natives looked at their world.
Starts with a fishing trip to the Grand Mesa.
When I was 16 I went fishing at Butts Lake on the Grand Mesa with two
of my closest friends. We watched huge cutthroat trout cruise the
shore and ignore our dangling lures… I grew bored. I scrambled
straight above the lake unwittingly discovering my favorite hiking
trail in Mesa County, the narrow ridge of Crag Crest. As I returned to
my friends on the rocky lake shore, we heard an eerie sound for
several minutes. The air seemed to vibrate like a whale song blown
through a continuously curving vacuum hose.
We looked at each other and said nothing as the air moaned and
vibrated. All was perfectly calm around us. We were unnerved. We
packed up our empty tackle and hurried down the trail for the car. On
the drive home we stopped at Alexander Lake Lodge for a soda and some
answers. We asked a gray haired man at the counter if he heard any
strange sounds or winds that day. He said nothing and handed over a
sheet of paper that told this story;
The Gran Mesa legend from the Ute Indians
The Ute Indians local to the area believed that great Thunderbird’s (or
giant eagles) ruled the skies and lived atop the Grand Mesa. One day
the great birds attacked the Ute village and carried children to their
nest on the Mesa’s edge. The fiercest warrior disguised himself as a
tree and climbed the Mesa to their nest. He discovered that the
children had been eaten. In vengeance the warrior threw the
Thunderbird eggs over the Mesa’s edge to the valley below.
The Thunderbird’s returned to find an empty nest. They looked down to
find that their offspring had been swallowed by a giant serpent –
perhaps the serpent represents the Colorado River- in the valley. The
great birds screeched down lifted the great serpent high over the
Grand Mesa. In a raging storm the bird hurled electrified pieces to
the forest below, creating huge scars on the Mesa’s previously flat
top. The storm raged and the gouges were filled with sorrowful tears
from loss of their offspring, thus forming the many lakes of the Grand
One of the Ute names for the Grand Mesa roughly translates to “Land
of the departed spirits.” The Ute’s ritually suspended their dead
high in the trees for their spirits to be carried by winds into the
spirit world on the Mesa.
It is said that there are two strange winds that blow across the Mesa’s crest: One is the Thunderbirds screeching for their lost young,
and the other is from the Ute warrior calling for the tribes lost children. I’m not sure which one Chris, Ed and I heard, but my guess is the wail of the Thunderbirds.
A Legend for All to See
We can lay eyes on the legend everyday from the Grand Valley. Just
below the north edge of the Mesa above Palisade there is a chalk
colored hieroglyph in the pines forming the shape of the great
Thunderbird. Below the feature is a slender chute through the trees
that is rarely visible. “F Road” aka Patterson Road points directly
toward the feature. The Ute legend says the Serpent Chute is the
height of ten lodge-pole pines. The legend tells that when the
Thunderbird grabs the serpent, it rains in the valley. I don’t
suggest that I believe this or any other myths. However I have seen
this very event occur. As my family returned from a long trip out
west, I saw the setting sun strike the Thunderbird and then light up
the snake on the west face of the Mesa. Just then it began to rain and
spread life giving rain across the valley.
Keep your eye out for the great Thunderbird -and perhaps a storm
foretelling light show- on the Grand Mesa above Grand Junction. Listen for the
winds of the moaning Ute warrior or the screech of the giant birds
when rambling among the lakes, forests and ridges on top of Grand Mesa.
Grand Mesa and the Grand Valley
I long for a more complete grasp of the Grand Valley’s history, but I
think this legend adds a cultural element that is currently missing in
our collective story in Grand Junction. I think we should all remember
the past and consider it’s importance; history’s lessons can yield a
brighter future for us all. Seth Anderson
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